Saturday, April 29, 2017


I keep remembering my childhood these days. Partly because my three-year-old asks about it every night as I put him to bed. Things are coming back to me that I haven't thought of in years.

Today I remembered how I used to feel about the Pledge of Allegiance.

For an American who grew up in the U.S., it's probably impossible to quite visualize with just how alien it felt to me when I first encountered it. I was six--which I suppose is the same age you were (if you're American) unless they do it in kindergarten. But I just had never seen such a thing before. And all the flags hung from suburban houses, as if the owners wanted to remind everyone what country we were in. In France I'd see flags on government buildings, maybe a handful extra on the 14 of July. (Which, by the way, I've never heard called Bastille Day in France, just the 14th of July.) And I had never, never pledged or saluted a flag--or seen anyone do so--in France. Not in school, certainly not in church (as in the U.S. we did at AWANA), not anywhere. My French schoolmates--who were plenty patriotic, I might add--would have found it very weird.

As did I.

I don't quite remember asking my parents what "pledge" and "allegiance" meant, but I know that I would have, and that they would have taken the time to fully explain. I do remember the sense of strangeness I felt when I grasped the concept: Really? To a flag? I remember the sense of dislocation I had when, a few years later, I was taught about flag protocol and learned how symbolic the height at which a flag was flown was--and remembered the dozens of churches I had been in which put an American flag and a Christian flag onstage at identical heights. And the flagpoles, where the Christian flag was flown below.

I was a Christian kid. It had been made abundantly clear to me that God is the most important thing. It really didn't take a lot of logic, from there, to the conclusion that something was wrong.

I mean, you could argue about what allegiance means. When Jesus said you can't serve two masters he didn't mention your nation as one of them, so, you could argue the point. People have a lot of reasons for what they feel about a nation, and I didn't have the same reasons a lot of people do. I was born in Northern Ireland as an American citizen, raised in France, occasionally spent a year in Texas; my father spent most of his childhood and youth in Europe, my mother a lot of hers in Brazil. I guess I was a little detached, and I suppose you could argue about whether this was a good thing. That argument's a little beyond the scope of this blog post; I'm tired and sick, and my kid will wake up soon, so maybe another day.

By my next couple sojourns in the U.S.--ages 10 and 13--I'd grown pretty uncomfortable with the pledge. While many Americans argued fiercely for or against the "under God" part, my problem was squarely with "I pledge allegiance to the flag." Allegiance sounded awfully serious to me; it sounded like the kind of thing you should only give to God.

Well, I wasn't a particularly brave kid. I never stood up and proclaimed myself a conscientious objector. I tended to mouth vague sounds instead of reciting. I remember working on a pledge to God that was supposed to have the same cadences as the flag pledge, so you could just recite that one instead and no-one would notice. (I quit halfway through, as I did with many things at that age.) I spent so much time in school feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed or different, it really just felt like part of the general trend.

It's been so long, now, since I've been expected to recite it, but I know just how I would feel. It's so hard to explain it, because I know it's so normal here. What if I simply said: please imagine a classroom of kids in Russia with their hands on their hearts pledging their flag. OK, now China. Now Pakistan. Now Iran.

Does it feel strange at all?

Years after all this, I learned that there was a time when French school kids did salute and pledge their flag. I learned it when researching How Huge the Night with my mother. There's a scene in the book where the young protagonist learns that he and his classmates are now expected to salute the French flag every morning with the same stiff-armed salute the Nazis used. This was a real order from Marshal Petain, head of the collaborationist--and self-proclaimedly fascist--Vichy government. The village I write about, which later saved Jews, quietly defied it.

When I learned that, I wondered if it might not be the reason they don't do flag-salutes in France now.

I believe in doing right by your country. I believe in doing right by others, period. But I am leery of patriotic pageantry, and treating the flag as a holy object. I am leery of loud demands for shows of loyalty, and the louder they are, the more I worry.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

How my unschooled kid taught me Slow Video

Hey--watch this!

Or, well, maybe you don't want to. It's a little long and moves a little slow. I won't blame you if you don't. I would probably have a hard time with it myself, out of context like this on someone's blog. It's so rewarding if you do watch it, but it is hard--without a 2- or 3-year-old kid.

It's only because I have one that I discovered it.

The whole thing happened kind of by accident. I remember exactly how it happened. He was actually one year old at the time, and according to the experts (well, some experts I heard quoted one time) I shouldn't have been giving him "screen time" at all. But we had just come back from his first road trip (to my brother's wedding) and we had seen migrating geese. I had pointed them out in the sky but hadn't been sure if he understood what I was pointing at. So when we were home I put my computer on the table and told him I was going to show him geese. Youtube was just the easiest way to show him anything. There they were--geese flying, geese honking, geese splashing down in a pond. I picked videos that were mostly raw footage, because the flashy stuff labeled "for kids" had so much talking and cutting between this and that that I just wasn't sure he could follow it. He loved it. "Geese! Geese!" It was a few days of him asking for more before I figured out he thought "geese" meant "video." Ha ha.

I was just the usual harassed parent of a toddler, and breakfast was one of the times I could relax a little because at least his mouth was full and his hands were busy. (We've never spoon-fed him anything. He has to do the work his own self, darnit.) Showing him videos extended that a little. From geese we went on to other birds, and pretty soon we started making our way in stages through "Winged Migration." Then I noticed it. I glanced over at him, and there was something about his eyes I hadn't noticed before. That slightly glazed, TV-watching look. Now I'm not saying anything bad about that look in itself--there's nothing wrong with relaxed immersion for Pete's sake, it's just a matter of how much of your life that is--it's just that I realized something really surprising. The other videos--his previous "screen time"--hadn't made him look like that.

I looked back at the screen and watched for why, and I saw it. It's an incredibly well-made documentary, beautifully cut and scored and voiced. It's meant to be immersive--that's why they cut it. Just like you read in the old arguments against TV, they don't show you the same thing for too many seconds--less than ten usually--then they cut to something new, and that's how they keep your attention. And that's how they get that look.

And raw footage doesn't have that.

Well, he was a toddler. I figured he didn't need relaxed immersion, he needed to see things he hadn't seen before. And there was lots I wanted to show him.  We're unschooling him--learning by doing, learning by seeing, all day every day--so I tend to be on the lookout for what he's interested in, what's at his level just now to learn. I'd told him where eggs and milk come from, for instance, and with Youtube I could prove it. We watched eggs being laid. He pretended to lay eggs. We watched the same hand-milking video for weeks. Some of the videos had audio commentary, but I liked the ones that didn't even better; it gave me space to explain to him what was going on. Just lots of home-made videos, "this is what we do on our farm." When I ran dry of ideas for those I went with his interests: heavy equipment, of course. Breakfast became time to watch tractors plow, or excavators dump earth into dump trucks, over and over. (There's a surprising amount of that out there, usually titled with complete specs of the equipment.) Not so fun for me, but he loved it, and I could open a blog in a separate, narrow little window and read.

My mom used to tell people about how he watched construction footage for fun, as a funny story. And I guess it is unusual. But I don't think he does it because he's an unusual kid. I think any kid would be interested in that. Any kid who'd be excited to see a backhoe turn up next door and would happily run out and watch it work, he'd gladly watch it on a screen too. We give them the immersive stuff because that's the programming touted as being "for kids," but it's not necessarily the only thing they'll like. I mean it's incredibly well designed to make kids keep watching, yes, but... that's one of the reasons I stay away from it. (Mostly. Now at 3 years old he gets animated nursery rhymes and a little gently paced CG dino who teaches numbers and colors in Spanish.) I'm not against cartoons, it's just... there's plenty of time for that. Why get him hooked so early? This is simple, it's not overstimulating (and I've seen him overstimulated, when all he ever wants to role-play for days is the same movie scene, he is overstimulated)... it's like waiting a little on giving your kid candy so they'll learn to like fruit first or something.

I just want to say at this point: we don't all have the same life. I don't eat organic. We can't afford it. (We can't afford Netflix either, which come to think of it might be a big reason this post exists.) If you can't afford the time this kind of thing takes, and it does take time, why on earth should I have any comment to make about that? I don't. I just thought this was worth sharing. In case you like it. That's honestly all.

<wipes forehead> OK. Anyway.

But see, the slow videos have made me think. Especially since Paul and I watched the incredible short-ish movie The Fits, about an African-American pre-teen who joins the amazing local dance/drill team only to find that it's being hit by a mysterious epidemic of seizures. It's magical realism, it's a deep exploration of a young girl's life, there is so much genuine emotion and so much respect--please watch it.

And it is slow. Never too slow, but it woos you into slowness. I don't really know that much about acting, but I suppose it must be a brilliant performance by young Royalty Hightower and some brilliant directing too, because it convinces you to sit and watch raptly as a young girl pushes a push-broom around a gym, or pirouettes slowly and aimlessly around it with the unselfconsciousness of a child who is completely alone.

What it reminded me of most was Andrei Tarkovsky. A Russian filmmaker who made these slow, spiritual movies, like Mirror and Stalker (not a stalker in the American sense--more of a wilderness guide--long story) and Solaris. (I tried to watch one of them with my dad, but when the first five minutes were someone getting out of bed and quietly gathering his things in the half-dark, he went off to do something else.) He was also brilliant, of course. It takes brilliance to take adults back to the pace of children, to being immersed in life, not because there's something new every ten seconds, but because it is life and life is new.

But kids don't need that. Kids can watch footage and think wow.

In college I once read an essay, I wish I could remember by whom, which made the point that the Grand Canyon doesn't awe us anymore specifically because it's the Grand Canyon. Because it's called that, because we show up with expectations, because we pull into the visitor center and get out of our cars hoping to be awed. What would it be like (the author asks) to just stumble on it? When you weren't expecting it? This massive gulf laid out before you, the bottom so far away.

Maybe that's why I had to watch the Swiss video above with a child. It is slow video embodied, a day in the Alps that isn't cut, that isn't commented. The title said it was about cows in the Alps, and I had recently told the Boy about them, how they wore bells and all--so I clicked. And we followed a Swiss family on their annual walk with the cows up to the high pastures. The depth of it creeps up on you--the huge bells hung from their ceremonial-looking collars, the young people around the edges, all helping to herd, the preteen girl quietly and expertly milking a goat. But what got me was the row of grizzled men sitting on the porch with glasses of something celebratory in front of them, doing this quiet yodelly singing in harmony. Not for show. They know some friend or relative is filming it on his phone, they don't really care. This is something they do because they love it. Their family has always done this, way back into the depths of the past. There are deep, deep roots here, and they're not being shown off. It's not some folkloric thing with a TV commentator telling us how cool--or quaint--it is. It's life, being lived.

I love that my kid can see this exactly as it is. He doesn't understand he's supposed to have distance from it. He doesn't know what quaint means, nor culture. To him it's just farming, which is something he's interested in; it's cows and bells, and going up to the mountain pastures because spring is here and the grass is long and green now, and a family hanging out together. And that's what it actually is.

And then we turned it off, and it was time for the most fun thing about slow video. "Can we play that?" He wants to play everything he sees. Everything you tell him about, even. So we got out his toy cow & farmers & I made a mountain pasture for him on the couch. His favorite thing was having the farmer go check on the cow because she fell down--sometimes down the mountain--so the bell stopped ringing. He would then help her up again. Y'know. Like you do.

He's played shoeing horses, or having me shoe him. ("I'm a DRAFT HORSE!") He's played laying eggs and racing cars and milking cows and surfing, roping horses and puffins flying off a cliff and an elephant named Ramprasad hauling logs through the jungle. (That was a BBC Earth clip.) It's ridiculously fun. And of course he plays excavators all the time. Kids will imitate anything they see. It's kind of their job--learning how to be and do. I remember the National Geographic video of a snowy owl dive-bombing an arctic wolf to protect her babies, how it fired him up--he wanted to be that mama, guarding little ones felt right in his bones. There are a lot of things I can't give him. We don't have a car, and clubs and lessons will be hard to afford. But I can give him this, and for free. And then play it with him.

There are a lot of different places you can go looking for this, and it's hit or miss (there's no Slow Video category to click on) but in honor of the Youtube poster who made me think all these thoughts, I'll post two more of his videos--the ones the Boy just watched as I was finishing this, since he went and woke up before I was done.

(If you want to know, I thought the second one was a little boring. But the boy really wanted it. And as soon as it was done he began to wave his hands slowly and menacingly in the air and announced, "I'm... a... lobsterrrr!")

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Life Again

For Easter I'd like to share my favorite Easter reading that I've written. We read it aloud in my church the year I wrote it. It's a monologue by an unnamed, humble male disciple, the husband of Salome. He doesn't even have a name, and yet I think he might be my favorite person I ever wrote. I remember what it was like to write this. It was as if he spoke to me.


The garden was wet that morning, the rich man's garden around his tomb cut into the rock. I remember that. You could still hear the earth drinking the rain.

It had been a dry spring that year. Very dry. Everyone was afraid. The young crops in the fields were beginning to shrink and wither, to hang their heads like weary slaves. Everyone spoke of it, guessing at how soon a rainfall would need to come, to save enough of the crop. Everyone spoke of it, when they weren't speaking of the things that were happening in Jerusalem.

You know, I am sure, what happened in Jerusalem that year. Maybe you have heard that a great prophet came to Jerusalem, and was acclaimed with hosannas and palm branches, and that the Sanhedrin and the Romans conspired against him and killed him. Maybe you have heard that a rabble-rouser came, and all the poor and landless flocked to him and hailed him as king, and something had to be done. Though perhaps it should have been done more quietly. I have heard that some of them thought that, afterwards.

We had followed him there, from Galilee. We were the poor and landless. I had farmed another man's land ever since I was old enough to put my hand to my plow; it was my father who got into debt and had to sell our farm. No fault of his. Three bad harvests, in a row. Three years just like this one was promising to be: thirsty, dusty, empty of the new life we were hoping for so hard.

 And so we lost our land, although we lived on it and farmed it still. I married; my father died; I farmed. Every year struggling hard to meet the rent; every year hoping, trying, working from dawn to sundown with hardly a pause, hoping to keep enough back so that in three years, five years, ten years we could buy it back. Every year the hopes withering a little more, even as our hopes for a child withered also. After the last harvest was all gathered in and the storms began, I would calculate how much we could keep back. And then I would calculate whether we could make the rent at all. And then I would walk out into the field, in the rain, so that my wife would not have to see me crying. I didn't go there to cry; I went to pray; but I couldn't. I could only hear in my mind a line from the prophet Isaiah, over and over again till I wept: “The harvest is over, the summer is gone, and we are not saved.”

So when I heard of this man Jesus, I had very little to lose. Very little. That year my wife fell ill, terribly ill, till it seemed certain she would die. When Jesus came to our town I came out to him and pushed through the crowds that were around him, the people begging him to heal their sick, and when I finally reached him I begged too. He came into my house. I couldn't carry her―she was hot with fever and gasping for breath―and so he walked with me and actually came into my little house, and he put his hand on her head, and for a moment he closed his eyes, and in his face I saw such weariness. It was as if all our hopeless, grinding struggle, all the years we had worked and worked and not been saved, were on his shoulders and in his face, and I felt a stab of fear, and thought: he cannot save her.

He seemed so much like us. Who could save nothing.

And then his eyes opened and his face lit up, like the sun for joy and power. And I heard my wife's breathing slow down, and deepen.

I was so grateful to him I could not speak.

And so we followed him. She stood up from her bed and offered him bread and milk, and he ate with us, till a man came to the door begging him to come heal his son, and he went. And I spoke with my wife, and we were of one mind. So that when he came back to our door, staff in hand, on his way down the road again, and looked at us and said Follow me, we were packed and ready. He walked away from the fields I had worked all my life and we walked away with him. We were done with the struggle. With working till we were stumbling with weariness, and not being saved. God knew what would happen to us, how we would live. But God had sent this man. This Messiah. And he had come into our house, and he had said follow. So let the land go, let the withered hopes go, let God decide what would come. We were done.

We followed him, from town to town, walking in the train of disciples. We lacked nothing. Among the disciples, everyone shared what they had. We listened to his words, wherever he stopped to teach. We loved him. We followed him to Jerusalem, and cried hosanna with all the people, and I threw my threadbare cloak in the road for his donkey to walk on. And yes, I hoped he would be king. I could imagine nothing better.
And less than a week later, he was killed.

I remember that night, the night after he died, as if it were yesterday. We were staying at Lazarus of Bethany's house, a finer house than I had ever slept in, a dozen of us on the floor in each big room. My wife was in the next room with the women; I couldn't bear to be with her. She had seen him die. She tried to tell me what it was like, and I walked away. I couldn't. I was already broken, just from hearing he was dead. I was barely breathing now.

I sat on the floor in silence, with the other men, and the thoughts in my head were like jackals, tearing. He was dead. Hope was dead. My wife had trusted me and I had led her into a trap. Followed after a false messiah. Or a doomed prophet. What difference, in the end? We had nothing, no money; no home. We could not ask Lazarus and his sisters to continue helping us forever, for the sake of a dead man we all had loved. We would have to set out on the road, and somehow make our way back to our village, not knowing if we would be allowed to begin our hopeless farm again. I thought, we will starve, and it's my fault. I thought, this is how people become slaves. And their children after them. I thought of the wheat in the fields, the dusty shoots hanging limp, and I thought of the weary eyes of slaves, which held the truth: work without hope is, in the end, all we have.

And then I heard a sound, from outside; a sweet, soft sound spread wide across the sky and the land, that began very quietly, and grew. It was raining.

I sat on the floor in the dark―we had lit no lamps―and I listened. Put my head back, and listened to the rain. Falling soft on the thirsty earth, laying to rest the dust; I pictured the crops, in the fields, the dust washed off them now, small and green against the dark earth. And I could not help it. Hope came up. Small and green against the darkness in my heart.

A farmer cannot listen without hope to the rain.

Because a farmer knows, though he forget it again and again. He knows where hope comes from, and salvation. He can plant. He can even water, to the best of his strength, and for a time. But it will all come to nothing, unless God sends the rain.

I lay down on my mat, and remembered that day he had healed my wife. I remembered the freedom, the surrender, of walking away behind him. I lay there, and I listened to the rain.

It rained for two days.

On the third day, the women woke early. They had bought spices, they wanted to embalm him. No one thought the rich man would lend his tomb forever; and so he must be fit to be moved. My wife went with them. She was not with them, when they came back.

They came back wild-eyed, shouting that the tomb was empty, that he was alive. We stared at them. Peter and John began to try to talk them out of their fit. I said nothing, and counted them. All of them were there except her. I slipped out the door.

She was in the street outside, waiting. Too shy to come in with the others. She was waiting for us all to come out, to go back to the tomb. Her eyes were shining like a sunrise in spring. The joy in her face almost made me look away, it was so bright.

“It's true?” I whispered.

She nodded. “I saw angels.” She was whispering too. “Two of them. So bright.” There were tears in her eyes. “They say he's alive. That God―God gave him life again.”

“Where is he, Salome?”

“I don't know,” she said. “I don't know.”

I do not remember all that happened. I remember Peter and John rushing past us, and me without the strength to run; still barely breathing, still weak with joy. Alive. I had not led her into a trap. The true Messiah―only the true Messiah could do such a thing. And he had stepped inside my door; he had looked into my eyes, and said Follow. He had not abandoned me. The freedom, the day I walked away from all I had known―that was his gift to me, and his gifts he does not take back. He gives them again and again. This I thought, as I walked. This I knew. God does not take back the rain.

It was true. Since the day we walked away and followed him we have lacked nothing. We are not slaves; nor are our children.

We walked to the tomb. The sun was still rising; the doves were calling, they were flying down and drinking from the puddles in the road. When we got there the place was empty; no one walked in the wet garden, and the cave of the tomb was dark and silent. We stepped into it, my wife and I, and our steps echoed; in the darkness my eyes began to see the head-cloth, neatly folded, and laid aside; the graveclothes, empty, still holding the shape of a man who had no need of them now. It was so quiet. Even from inside the tomb, you could hear the earth drinking the rain.
That is what I remember.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Gravity and grace

I've been thinking it's time to explain the name of this blog. I tried just laying it out--it has to do with philosophy--and realized that laid-out philosophy is not my forte and for all I know it may not be yours. I haven't read all that much philosophy to tell the truth--it's just that the little I've found myself capable of focusing on has come to mean so much to me. And I really do, I really do have such a hard time focusing on anything so disembodied. It's the ones who don't disembody it that I can actually read. Like Kierkegaard and--at least some of the time--Simone Weil, whom the blog title actually comes from. (A philosopher who, in the last few years of her short life, became a Christian mystic.)

But I'm going to start at the other end this time, with the embodying. With what I've done with what I've learned about gravity and grace; with the secret worry I have, that my new book is going to be "too dark" for the American Christian reader, and why I made the choices I did in writing it.

Because yes, it is dark. If you read it you will see people you've met--people you've seen laugh with their friends and hold their children--deported by the Nazis, and you will never see them again. No-one in the book finds out what happened to them, whether any of them might come back. I could tell you, though--and not because I as the writer decided it. There's not a single deportation in the book that isn't based on a real incident. I can tell you the real names of those who came back, and those who did not. And that is part of why I made the choices I did--because I didn't want to insult the memory of those real people by telling this story as if what happened to them didn't happen.

So I did it because it's the reality of history. But also because it's the reality of life. Gravity; the inescapable force that pulls us down. And because if you skimp on gravity, you skimp on grace. And I did not want to skimp on grace.

The retreat we just hosted was for interns from Emmaus Ministries, a group of people who minister to men in Chicago who engage in prostitution to survive. Most, if not all, of these men are addicted to drugs. The interns are the ones who go out on what they call Outreach: walking around Boys' Town till two-thirty in the morning wearing badges that say EMMAUS in large letters, which mark them as "someone you can talk to, if you want to get out of it." Sometimes they refer to the men they serve as "the guys"--but mostly, they speak of them by name. They give their hearts, not only in charity but in friendship, to people embroiled in choices that are destroying them spiritually and putting them at physical risk. People they know they will have to cry for. One young woman talked about begging a friend, out on Outreach in the middle of the night, not to get on a certain bus--and how broken she felt when he did anyway. Al Tauber, the long-term staff member who came with them, described feeling like a deep-sea diver with the pressure of death all around him, God keeping him alive one breath at a time. He told us a story about a bush in front of their Ministry Center that they had thought was dead for weeks, months, till one day a green shoot rose from it, then quoted to us from a song he wrote recently. The verses were dark and tragic and real; I mean really real, some of them about friends who had died. Then the chorus, sung by his wife in her beautiful voice, which as he described it I pictured rising like a thin golden thread, like a bird: "From the stump a shoot will grow..."

I couldn't see all that well through my tears, but I think all of us in the room may have been crying.

It's just the same message you always hear. It's just the same. There is hope. It sounds so stupid sometimes, so shallow. But when the speaker of the message gives gravity its due, then, then you hear the far, clear music ringing.

What do I mean by gravity? Maybe you know by now, but I'll explain. Simone Weil, in her book Waiting for God, writes about suffering, about how the careless powers of the world--"necessity," the world and its physical laws we cannot escape--can simply crush us. She writes about the beauty of those powers, too: "In the beauty of the world brute necessity becomes an object of love. What is more beautiful than the action of gravity on the fugitive folds of the sea waves, or on the almost eternal folds of the mountains?" The law of gravity is her symbol of this, of the beauty and the indifference and the crushing power of the world.

And then set against it is grace--the miracle. Set against gravity is the Hand that lifts.

It reminds me of Kierkegaard's concept--the only concept of Kierkegaard's I really understand--of infinite resignation and faith. He shows us two men, one of whom has mastered "the movements" of infinite resignation, of giving up the good things he cannot have. But the other goes beyond him: he masters those movements too, but then goes on to learn the movements of faith, and believes that the good things will--may--will--be given back to him. The miracle of the "knight of faith" is that he truly is resigned--if his heart's desire is not given to him, he accepts that without bitterness--and yet he truly believes that God will provide.

It's the word infinite that matters here. Kierkegaard insists, absolutely insists, that the resignation is infinite. Weil insists that gravity is absolute, and cannot be fought. We can give ourselves up to it, or fight it; it will kill us in either case. The man who makes the motions of faith without infinite resignation has false faith--a touching optimism. A short circuit. He's in the final lap of a swimming race having almost touched the wall before turning back.

It's not the shape of the story that matters. It's the same story, whether it's about danger and rescue, or critical injury and recovery--or death and resurrection. And yet it's not.

It's not the shape of the motions that matter. It's going all the way.

Jesus went all the way.

This means so much to me, more than I can say. I had a spiritual experience once--which I may share someday--that seemed to tell me this is what God has given me to offer. To write in such a way as to give both gravity and grace their full weight. That's why I named my blog after this. All my life I have been obsessed with darkness and light.

My book is about the inescapable reality that victory--necessity--gravity--is on the side of the big guns. I had to give that reality its due. I had to grind it into the soul of my character till he felt it in his bones. Without that, the miracle is not a miracle. It's the guilty reassurance we give to a young child because we know we cannot explain and we do not want to terrify, the lie that it's going to be all right, everything is going to be all right.

It's not going to be all right. We are all going to die.

And then God will raise us up.


Image credits: Gloria Wilson (flying bird), Franz von Stuck

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The prodigal son: a reading

This coming week we'll be hosting a retreat, so I thought I'd post what I wrote for it.

My husband Paul and I host free spiritual retreats especially for people in transitional programs of some kind. It's a time for catching your spiritual breath apart from hard life in the city and taking time to listen to God and to each other. We always choose a Gospel story to center the retreat around, usually someone's encounter with Jesus, and we each write something about it to prepare: him, discussion questions for Bible study, and me, a story.

Or sometimes we call it a reading. These are a little hard to define--it's its own genre in a way. My personal word for it is midrash, but that's not a precise use of the term. (Midrashim are Jewish commentaries on the Torah often in story form, so... you can see the connection probably.) It's a story written as a companion piece to a Scripture passage, to comment and expand on it. The ones I write for retreats are written specifically to be read aloud--often a monologue by the Biblical character about their life, an imagining of the parts of their own story before, and sometimes after, what is written in Scripture.

All that to say: the story I'm going to post here is written specifically to be read aloud to a gathering, to stimulate reflection and/or discussion on a Bible passage. It can be used in church, small group, or Bible study, and if you'd like to use it, please do. This story and my others like it are in the public domain and I love for people to use them. The rest of them be found at my other website,



I was glad he left. Actually. Oh, I wasn't glad he insulted our father and walked away not only unpunished but with the sale price of our three best fields in his belt, but we were rid of him. I counted my blessings.

Not having to live with Levi anymore; I did not underrate that blessing.

I remember when we were boys together—though I thought I was already a man. I made him his first sling and taught him to use it. I was no bad hand at the sling; I'd killed more than one wild dog that came worrying the sheep. And yes, I'd made myself unclean till evening, burying them, and had to eat my supper alone; I wouldn't have dreamed of doing otherwise. To leave a carcass there in the pasture to rot, to sicken everyone, and attract jackals? No. That's what Levi did—once he finally learned to kill anything.

But the first day I taught him, he wasn't thinking of killing jackals and wild dogs. No. That wasn't good enough for him. He was King David already, shouting taunts at the Philistine. That was the worst of him, how you could see in his eyes he thought himself better than you, even as he destroyed your work. I stood before him and showed the proper stance, the grip, the angle of the swing; his eyes didn't watch me. He took up the sling I'd made him before I was done, shoved the first uneven rock he found into the pouch—without centering it—swung, lost his clumsy grip, and shot the rock straight behind him, into the flock. I'd thought it was enough to face him away from the sheep, you see. The rock struck our second-best ram and opened a gash in its flank. Within a day the wound went hot. I had to do some careful nursing—watching through the night—to keep the beast alive.

Levi denied having done it.

Father was always most distressed about his lying. He was distressed that day, because I had told him what happened, and he knew I didn't lie. But I never thought lying was Levi's real problem. His problem was what he did in the first place. Carelessness, you might name it. Boyish enthusiasm, endearing and harmless. Indeed. A boyish thirst for easy pleasure and glory; a boyish impatience that demands it now; a boyish refusal to pay any price for it at all—even a moment's attention.

I've known others like this. In the end they are simply locusts. They destroy.

The day he left, I walked out to the farthest sheep pasture, to spend my anger in silence. I was glad he was gone, and I was angry, and I mourned. I walked past our best wheatfield, which was ours no longer. My father had put that wheatfield in my charge—I'd worked three years on it now, careful work and hard. I never hesitated to put my back into the work along with my men. I husbanded that soil; I put more into it each year than I took out. It was green and lush by the time Father sold it out from under me to put silver in Levi's hand. To Asa son of Nathan, of all people—another locust. A bad, careless farmer, who lets his fences go unrepaired for years, till his oxen run out and trample our wheat. I knew he would ruin that field.

Father came to me and said that he was sorry, that there was no other way he could find, to make up the second son's portion. I could see that he had been weeping, that this was destroying him. But I was angry. I respect my father as I should, and so I said nothing. But if I'd spoken, I would have said this: “And if men like you allow the locusts to eat them, what do you think will be left of this world? Do you think that it won't be your fault?”

He looked at me as if I had spoken and he would answer, and he said, “He may yet come back.”

 That was always Father's problem.

One year he put Levi in charge of two kids he was fattening. Hoping he would learn. He had only to feed and water them each morning; he never did. He fed and watered them at suppertime, after Father spoke to him about how thirsty they were. But Father never allowed any of us to do it for him, no matter how loudly they cried. Cried all day, till my head ached and I could feel their thirst in my own throat. Oh, I don't think Father would have done it if it had been summer—but still. He thought Levi would hear them and take pity. He didn't know Levi like I did. That was Father's problem. He trusted him to change.

We wasted mounds of good hay on those kids, and they never grew fat. I could have told him they wouldn't—spending their days in distress like that wore the weight right back off them. Yet it was me Father became angry with. He heard me use the word locust about Levi, and his face darkened like the sky.

I remember what he said, because it cut me. He said I would not treat a goat the way I treated my brother. I opened my mouth to protest, and he said that I would be the best of farmers someday; that I understood the nature of the fields I worked, the natures of sheep and of goats and of cattle; that I treated each thing with care according to its nature. Except my brother, whom I did not treat according to the nature of a man.

“I'll treat him like a man,” I said, “when he begins to act like a man.”

“You misunderstand me,” said my father. “We are made in the image of God—man, woman and child. A locust is not free to spare our crops if it should choose. It must eat. God is free to spare us, or not spare us, according to His will. Your brother, too, is free.”

“Then why has he never spared us? Not once?”

He looked at me and didn't speak for a moment. Then he said that to fail to see what is in front of one's eyes is folly, and to refuse to see it is sin. He asked me if I really had not seen the times when Levi spared us, how he had tried.

I certainly couldn't remember any such thing.

Well, the awful thing played itself out, as I could have predicted. The bad friends, the drinking. The women. I won't speak of that. Until the day he came to my father and demanded his portion—to his face—and my father let him take his bites out of our farm, out of his heart. I thought at first he might want what I wanted—to be rid of him, even at so steep a price—until he told me he hoped for him back. And then I was afraid.

Because I knew what Levi was. I saw how he ate, and did not plant. He would run through the money; it was plain as day. He would run through the money, and then he would look to his chances, and realize where his best chance lay.

He's home now. Came in rags. I'd like to search that little pack he's got, see if he hid his real clothes in it. Father's put the best robe on him, and killed the fattest calf. He's got half the village out in the courtyard now while it roasts, and he's giving them the good wine. I can hear them laughing, I hear women singing. I can't stand it. There's nothing I can say to Father that he'll listen to. There's no way I can stop him from letting Levi eat the rest of his heart.

He sent for me. Father did. He sent Judah, his senior servant, with a message. I expected “Come right now” but it wasn't that. It was “Do you not want to see your brother?”

I don't know why Father would ask me that. I saw Levi two hours ago, before he got that bath. I saw him moments ago through this window, grinning like a fool. I've seen him walk home whistling, leaving some tool in the field to rust, I've seen him slip home on a moonless night after visiting some whore. Well, I'll go out to the party, if Father wants. In a little while. But I won't go there to look at Levi. I've seen him. There's nothing there I haven't seen before.

And here he comes now—Father. He has that look on his face. I've seen it so often—the strain in his eyes, the gentleness, the carefulness, when he was speaking to Levi about some piece of work he'd ruined, or where he'd been the night before. That heartbreaking trust. Oh, I can't stand it. Why is he looking like that? He's not looking at Levi. He's looking at me.